As the Oscars broadcast made its lazy (though perfectly pleasant) way through the motions Sunday night, one thing became more and more clear: The winners I picked on Friday might turn out to be the wrong ones, but they were the exact same ones picked by the awards ceremony’s producers, Neil Meron and Craig Zadan.
Start with the theme of the show, “heroes.” It clearly suited Best Actor frontrunner Matthew McConaughey and his performance as early AIDS activist Ron Woodroof—or for that matter, early co-favorite Chiwetel Ejiofor from 12 Years a Slave. But by most tally sheets, Leonardo DiCaprio had, in recent weeks, emerged as the strongest dark horse to challenge McConaughey. If Leo had pulled off the upset—well, let’s just say that “heroes” would have been an ill-fitting frame in which to give his performance as real-life rogue trader Jordan Belfort the evening’s penultimate prize.
Likewise, it might have been a tad awkward if the Best Picture that Will Smith was enlisted to announce at the show’s conclusion had wound up being Gravity—in which the sole non-white character (from an admittedly tiny cast) develops a fatal case of space-debris-though-the-skull five minutes into the movie—rather than 12 Years a Slave. The latter was favored to win, but by a narrow margin, with a lot of sharp observers thinking Gravity would pull off the upset.
Similar “tells” were on display throughout the evening. McConaughey was a ubiquitous presence, especially given that customary camera-magnets George Clooney and Robert Downey Jr. were not on the premises. (Clooney’s absence was particularly disconcerting: The Oscars ceremony is essentially his living room, and I can’t be the only one who felt slightly uncomfortable hanging out there while he was elsewhere.) Slight favorite for Best Supporting Actress Lupita Nyong’o was likewise constantly onscreen, which is saying a lot, given the Academy’s established fondness for her strongest competitor, Jennifer Lawrence.
Then there was the timing of the awards introductions. Best Picture was split into three groups of three and—lo and behold—12 Years a Slave just happened to be no. 9 overall. Likewise, the fourth Best Song performance (out of four) was Idina Menzel belting out heavy favorite “Let It Go” from Frozen. (And she did so well after my children’s bedtime, I might add. So much for your ratings in the crucial 12-and-under demo, ABC.)
Nor is it just the showrunners: Judi Dench may be in India filming The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel 2 (scripted, incidentally, like its predecessor, by Ol Parker, brother of The Atlantic’s own resident literary wizard James Parker). But it’s hard to imagine that Dench would’ve skipped the trip to the Dolby Theater if she hadn’t known that her old Notes on a Scandal cast-mate Cate Blanchett had Best Actress pretty much in the bag. (Poor Tom Hanks—another no show—also chose the wrong year for a big onscreen comeback: a plausible candidate for both Best Actor in Captain Phillips and Best Supporting in Saving Mr. Banks, he wound up with nominations in neither. Ditto early presumed Best Actor frontrunner Robert Redford for All Is Lost.)